For four years, hopes of finding Ben Needham have been raised and dashed. Paul Vallely and Mary Braid on how a mother copes
"We cannot say 100 per cent yet but all the indications are that this is not Ben Needham." The Greek police spokesman was responding to reports that the blond boy held by police in a gypsy camp in northern Greece had neither the blue eyes nor the distinguishing birthmark of the British child who disappeared on a holiday in 1991 and whose family have been searching for him ever since.

His mother, Kerry Needham, had earlier been paraded before the nation by Sky News to watch the blurred video recording made by a private investigator of the child it was claimed was her son.

"It is frustrating," she said of the poor quality of the film, "but I won't let myself get hurt by it. I have got to keep calm about it. I have got to keep an open mind, because if it does not turn out to be Ben again, I am going to be heartbroken."

In the past four years there have been so many "sightings" of the child that the police chief in Kos has three bulging files full of hundreds of false alarms.

It is in many people's interest to keep the story of Ben alive. Private investigators have their eyes on the pounds 30,000 reward offered for his return by business leaders in his native Sheffield. Freelance journalists in Greece know that they can always make a bob or two with a good "Baby Ben" sighting. British tabloids only exaggerate the roller-coaster of emotion to which the child's mother is subjected. "Could this be Ben?" one tabloid asked with pious concern above a recently published photograph, without having bothered to send it first to the child's mother, who would have ruined the story by pointing out that it wasn't. Yesterday, Ms Needham was being bombarded with media offers of a free plane trip to Greece.

What does all this do to a permanently distressed mother? And, brutal though it might seem to say so, might it not be that if the child is alive, returning to his natural parents after four years would be more traumatic for him than remaining where he is?

When a child dies, the normal grieving process passes through four stages.

First comes disbelief and denial that the loss has happened; it can last for just minutes, or go on for years, as it does in the case of parents who keep the missing child's bedroom untouched, preserved as a shrine against their increasingly unlikely return.

The second is that terrible phase in which the parent is seized with the irrational conviction that they could have prevented the disaster.

The third stage is a more outward-looking anger. Constructively, that can be turned to the formation of a pressure group, such as Mothers Against Drunken Drivers; destructively, it can be turned on the other partner ("it wouldn't have happened if you'd been there").

The final stage integrates these responses into a true grief which recognises the loss and accepts that nothing can put it right.

"All the first three stages can follow one another, overlap, go in parallel, reoccur, last for years," says Heather Bacon, consultant clinical psychologist at the Brompton House Child and Family Centre, who works a lot with fractured families. But if there is no grave, they can't bring an end to the grieving process or stop wondering what is happening to the child if he or she is alive.

"It's easier for grieving parents if they know what has happened," says the child psychoanalyst Betty Joseph. Every time a fresh sighting of the child occurs, "the grief is reactivated - and the grieving process will go on and on until something is known for definite".

"Our parents say their situation is worse than bereavement," says Denise Carter of Reunite, a support organisation for parents whose former partners have abducted their children. She has counselled mothers who have waited as long as six years to see their children again. "At least then you have a service by the grave side and realise it's final. But they - like Ben Needham's parents - are in an horrendous 'don't know' situation. They don't know if their children are alive or dead; if they are crying for them or happy where they are. Parents are often beside themselves."

Of the hundreds of parents that Sophie Woodforde at the Missing Persons Bureau has dealt with, she can think of only two who have chosen to have their children declared dead after seven years, as the law entitles.

Certainly Ben Needham's family have been remarkable in their persistence, returning constantly to Greece to raise the issue in Greek newspapers. His grandparents are in Kos this week, with Ben's young sister Leigh-Anna - who is now at the age that her brother went missing, and is said to bear a striking resemblance - to make a reconstruction video of his disappearance.

The experience has taken its toll on Ben's parents. They have now split up.

"There's so much anger and distress around a major event like that, who do you take it out on except your nearest and dearest?" says Heather Bacon.

"It puts a tremendous stress on a parent to lose a child in any situation. Parenting is central to most couples, so a disaster with a child stresses that relationship. It either forces you into a much closer couple bond, or you tear each other to pieces. I'd be surprised if marital break-up wasn't common."

"It raises all our strongest emotions. If partners are at different stages in the process - one angry, the other guilty - they can't help one another," Heather Bacon says.

There can be tensions with other family members too. "After this time the parents must have adjusted in some way to the loss - to get on with their lives - getting involved with careers or with other partners. They will have moved on in some way if they have got any survival strength," says Heather Bacon. But not everyone moves on in the same way.

"Grandparents tend to be much more faithful and focused on the child, because they've got more resources to stay steady and not move on in their own lives in the way a parent would."

Ben's grandmother has admitted as much. "We will die looking for Ben," she said recently. "There is no other purpose in life."

What no one asks is whether it would be a good idea to bring Ben back if he were found. After all, he knew his natural parents for less than two years; if he is alive, he has spent four years with some others.

"It's not going to be a blissful reunion for a child that knows and has held in mind his parents for all these years," Heather Bacon says. "He'll have forgotten them in a conscious way, though he might remember them unconsciously because the early bonding process is very important to children; it stays with them all their lives."

Heather Bacon feels that whenever Ben is found he should be returned to his mother. "Genetic bonds are very important," she says. "Genetic endowment is terribly important to how their personality will develop - we know this from twins that have separated at birth, who both end up like their parents even though they have been brought up in different situations."

Betty Joseph, a leading child psychoanalyst, says: "One might feel it was better for the child to go back to its parents. But this is not a moral question - not a lump of clay over which ownership is disputed - it is a psychological question.

"If this were Ben Needham who had been found, one would have to ask: are the real parents 'better' than the gypsy parents, and of course the very word gypsy brings out a lot of prejudices."

What if the child is alive but never rediscovered?

"He must have some kind of unease or suspicions, in some part of his mind he'll know - you can be sure about that. He'll grow up knowing that something isn't quite right and that there's something in his background that is a lie.

"If he denies it, that could block his capacity to be honest and curious; it could block his intellectual capacity in other areas, or could lead to it developing in an overwhelming and intrusive way."

Knowing all of which will only make matters worse for Kerry Needham. "This is a case in which whatever happens the grief is inevitable," says Betty Joseph. "It is a case in which every apparent solution throws up more problems."

For Kerry Needham, it might well appear that any solution would be better, in some respect, than her present torment.